What’s an Introduction For?
At the University of Michigan, I have been the Director of a Feminist Science Studies program, funded by our Institute for Research on Women and Gender, which means our group has had a lot of speakers come in. I haven’t introduced all of them, but I have introduced a lot of them. And, not to be all a bunch of bitches, but I’ve also given a lot of talks. Someone once said “DON’T SAY A LOT; SAY HOW MANY”, with the idea that someone might say “a lot” when they mean, like, four. So, maybe I’ve given 70-100 talks? And, maybe I’ve introduced 20-30 speakers? So, while I haven’t had as much experience with introductions as some, I’ve still had a pretty good share to think about. But only recently have I wondered what should actually be in an introduction. Or what an introduction is for. Or, for that matter, who it’s for. Or, for that that matter (the grammar police one), whom it’s for. Is it for the speaker, to welcome them or honor them? For the host, to explain why you invited the speaker? For the audience, to make clear why listening to the speaker is worthwhile, and/or to give them context for the expert/content/topic?
Sometimes, the more famous and fabulous the speaker is, the lengthier and more wonderful the introduction is. Arguably, though, this famous person is more likely to be known and therefore, perhaps paradoxically, be less in need of contextualizing for the audience than a less well-known person would be. But, does “Person who needs no introduction” really deserve no introduction? That feels a bit cheat-y. And, people coming to hear a talk might be coming for Super Famous Speaker (TM), but they might just be coming because it’s the Wednesday noon colloquium and that’s where they go on Wednesday noon times and they have no idea what’s on the menu. What if someone just wondered into the talk?
What if you ask the speaker what to say and they say “whatever you want to say is fine!”? Does that mean you can introduce them however you want? Clearly, no. there are still some expectations (but what are they?). And, what if the speaker feels like it would be rude to ask you to sing their praises, which is, incidentally, something that women and minoritized folks are socialized to feel (i.e., to take up less space than they deserve)? If you ask speakers , you might end up with really thorough elevating introductions for people who already occupy a position of privilege and sparse hellooos! to those that are less likely to be seen as gifted, accomplished, or leading experts by dint of their social position. In fact, this might happen anyway, if the host chooses what to say about the speaker, right? Like, the speaker might undersell themselves, but the host might do that too, because our culture tells all of us to see minoritized folks as less accomplished, able, brilliant, etc.
Why does this need to be a guessing game anyway? After some discussions with some thoughtful people, I came to the conclusion that, as host, I should aim to ask everyone for a set type of material – they can choose to give it to me or not, and they can choose to give me what I ask, more, less, or something entirely different. And, as a speaker, I would create a general bio, update it somewhat regularly, and send it out a few days before my talk to the host each time regardless of whether the host asks me for it. Will I feel kind of self-aggrandizing doing so? YOU ARE TALKING TO A PERSON WHO LITERALLY TEACHES A SEMINAR ON SELF-PROMOTION. Ok, yes, I will feel kind of self-aggrandizing. But so what? This introduction – this talk – this event – is not just about me, as counterintuitive as that may seem.
Another reason to ask for specific info and give it is that different people may value different things. Like, you as a speaker may be all “why didn’t they mention my Nobel Prize?” and they’re all “wow! this person was interviewed by Lindy West!” Or, you might be like “why didn’t they mention I have 200 papers?” (by the way, congrats on that!) and they’re all “no book!?” if you’re in different disciplines. Also, I would choose Lindy West over a Nobel Prize and you are duly warned, world.
What do I think should be in these bios? Let’s see… (oh, and aim for a paragraph unless you’re super famous, confident, or fabulous, and then do what you want with my permission!)
- Name. Maybe phonetically spelled out, now that I think of it! People always call me Suh-ree, or Seeree, or Sorry. It’s pronounced Sairy! It’s not even hard to say! Yes, it’s spelled like a garment but that is not my fault. Maybe we should do that.
- Position and Institution. Should it matter whether you are a lecturer, named chair, graduate student, etc.? Should it matter if you are at the University of No One Knows It or Famous U? If your ideas are awesome, they should be judged as such. But, you do have a position and a location, in most cases, so let’s just say it unless you have really principled stances against doing so (and then: fair enough).
- What You Study and Your Discipline. But just in a few words. Yes, everyone should know what you do by the talk title… maybe? Say your discipline/field/topics. I usually push people to say all of mine, which last an hour, because they help make what I do intelligible (or at least make its unintelligibility more clear 🙂 ).
- Your Big Deal Stuff. Maybe this is awards, fellowships, accomplishments, books, articles, places you’ve published, honors, your Nobel Prize (as if anyone cares). Someone once described these as gems? or jewels? Or sparklies? SHOW SOME SPARKLE. You judge what’s important. But don’t be disingenuous and be like: oh my, I couldn’t possibly decide what is sparkly on my CV. YOU KNOW WHAT IS SPARKLY. Also, don’t worry about offending people with your greatness. People won’t faint away when they hear your amazingness. Trust me: they’ll be able to manage. As we like to say in my house: don’t be so humble; you’re not that great.
- Other Formal Metrics of Success/Accomplishment. You could say how many peer-reviewed papers you have published, your book titles, your art installations, your public outreach (twitter followers, e.g.!), grant amounts and/or funding sources, editorial positions, whatever. DO NOT BE SHY. Go be shy at a cocktail party. These people invited you to speak. By definition, they have decided what you have to say is worth hearing! Oh, and don’t say numbers unless they are impressive, is my unsolicited advice. You have 10 papers? Don’t mention that unless you’re a graduate student or in a field where 10 is impressive. Instead, say you have published in journals like X, Y, and Z.
- You Do You. Are you a parent, and that’s an important part of your identity/academic experience, or you want people to expand their notion of what being a professor is? Say it! “And, Dr. So-and-So has three kids, one of which is a cranky cat.” If you can be funny (unlike me, there), do it. If there are other aspects of your life that are important to you and interesting to share, go for it! And consider sharing things that, as I noted about parenting, can expand people’s narrow ideas of experts and speakers by seeing you who is X do phenomenally well (but, um, don’t get stereotype threat-y). In addition, there may be social location factors that you need/want to say, from your gender identity to race/ethnicity to immigration status to tribe membership to all the things I should put here but amn’t.
Now, of course people will judge you by your introduction. If you are a minoritized person, your sparklies may be just what is needed for people to judge you as (just maybe) competent or exceptionally competent. But, of course, your sparklies may violate your social location norms – I mean, it literally violates the gender norms for women to be successful! rock, meet hard place! AMIRITE – and no one likes that. There might be eye rolls or internal sneers at you – who do you think you are, to have accomplished things and stuff! But, here’s the nice ticket: no one will know you gave this to your host! Your host is introducing you! They are saying these great things about you. So, even if you’re being too successful-read-uppity, the success will shine through more than the uppityness because it’s not coming from you! Win win. Yes, totally, your host may balk. More likely? They’ll be like: Yes! Now I don’t have to write an introduction! I love this person even more than I did when I invited them. So, introductions matter for you, your audience, and your host. They position us, they’re political, and they matter, so it makes sense to be more thoughtful about them. Go forth, and get that intro!
But, also, if I’m missing key things – let me know! Comment below 🙂